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USDA issues citations to University of Utah animal laboratories

SALT LAKE CITY — A kitten died from dehydration as a result of too much medication, individual primates were neglected for days at a time, mice and Guinea pig cages were found to be overcrowded, and calves may have been exposed to painful situations for too long, but University of Utah officials maintain that none of the most recent animal-testing violations, released Wednesday by the United States Department of Agriculture, were intentional.

After animal rights activists conducted undercover investigations of university facilities last year, the USDA and the National Institutes of Health's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare stepped in to determine if the U. was in violation of any federally regulated animal-testing requirements, which are fairly extensive. Their five-day, in-depth investigation took place in January and has resulted in warnings being issued to the U. to correct inappropriate behavior before the next routine investigation.

Since 2007, the U. has been found to be in total compliance with rules regarding the tightly regulated practice of animal testing in the U.S. However, the latest findings, brought on by PETA reports and public outcry, reveal a handful of violations U. Vice President of Research Tom Parks says are "relatively minor offenses."

"We have a reputation of running a good facility," he said. "If you look around long enough, you are going to find problems in any organization, and this is no different."

NIH, which provides funding for most of the animal testing at the U., reported that the U.'s program is "in very capable hands and in good order." The organization noted only one example of cage overcrowding, in which mice babies were not separated from their mothers in the two days required by research regulations.

The USDA report overlapped PETA's 2009 allegations in only a few instances, whereas PETA had delivered a list of dozens of items it believed constituted a violation.

Research institutions across the country that conduct animal tests are routinely investigated, and some are found in violation of various protocols and research procedures. The USDA website identifies recent instances and violations of animals living in their own waste at Stanford University, and outdated medications and food, as well as a dog that was burned by a lighting fixture at Yale University – both of which are institutions that house colleges of medicine much like the U.

Parks said a lot of what the USDA found during the most recent investigation at the U. were not results of improper care, but rather a failure to document certain actions performed by any one of the hundreds of researchers working with thousands of animals at any one of the U.'s 25 animal testing facilities.

"It is a violation to not keep records, but in my opinion these were not actions that had any effect on animal welfare," Parks said, adding that he regrets the death of the kitten, which he said was an obvious mistake. When researchers don't follow protocol, he said they are issued warnings, and beyond that, it is rare that a specific research procedure is terminated.

The U. will have to correct the wrongs found in the USDA's report prior to another unannounced visit in order to avoid more severe action or reprimand. A USDA regional spokesperson did not immediately return phone calls for comment. In response to the latest findings, Parks said he plans to hire an additional staff member to help keep an eye on research techniques and the use of animals in testing there.

"Most distressing in all of this is the accusation that we're running an unmanaged slaughterhouse, when in fact it is a carefully managed, heavily regulated process," Parks said. "Mistakes do happen, but they don't happen very often."

U.S. law requires animal testing prior to any new drugs or medical devices being released on the market.

"There can't be progress in medicine without testing on animals," Parks said, adding that he believes animals at the U. are treated "better than 99 percent of animals currently being tested in the U.S."

A 2007 USDA report states that Utah institutions used just over 7,000 animals for research, while research facilities in California were conducting tests on more than 124,000. The number of animals used in tests has continued to decline since a peak in 1985, and Parks said it is likely because they are the catalyst for cures. Once a cure is found, testing for that specific reason can stop, he said. Ninety-five percent of the U.'s animal inventory are mice.